Q&A: COVID-19 restaurant safety and dining etiquette

Shane Goode (right), a 1920 Tavern employee, delivers drinks to Bart Van Linden and his mother, Sabine Van Linden, at the Roswell restaurant. Courtesy of Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Staff and guests both play a role in making dining out safe and enjoyable

Before you dine out during the pandemic, here are important questions to consider in order to ensure a safer, more pleasant experience for everyone.

1. Should you eat out?

Before you visit a restaurant, assess your own health, and your risk level. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, older adults and people of any age who have serious underlying medical conditions might be at higher risk for severe illness from COVID-19. While the risk for severe illness is lower for others, everyone faces some risk of illness.

2. What restaurant service setting is right for you?

Restaurants offer multiple types of service, including drive-through, takeout (some with curbside pickup), counter-ordering and full-service sit-down. According to the CDC, the more an individual interacts with others, and the longer that interaction, the higher the risk of COVID-19 exposure. The CDC has established the following risk levels for restaurant and bar service settings:

  • Lowest risk: food service limited to drive-through, delivery, takeout and curbside pickup
  • More risk: drive-through, delivery, takeout and curbside pickup emphasized; on-site dining limited to outdoor seating; seating capacity reduced to allow tables to be spaced at least 6 feet apart.
  • Even more risk: on-site dining with both indoor and outdoor seating; seating capacity reduced to allow tables to be spaced at least 6 feet apart.
  • Highest risk: on-site dining with both indoor and outdoor seating; seating capacity not reduced, and tables not spaced at least 6 feet apart.

3. What safety measures do restaurants and bars have to follow?

On Sept. 30, Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp issued his most recent executive order, which provides guidelines and restrictions for operating restaurants and bars.

Among the nearly three dozen guidelines, restaurants and bars must ensure at least 6 feet of separation from seating to seating, or utilize physical barriers to separate groups sitting within 6 feet.

Restaurants no longer are required to limit party size or the number of patrons allowed per square foot in the restaurant. Bars are required to limit occupancy to 50 persons, or 35% of the total listed fire capacity of the entire bar, whichever is greater, and to limit party size to six.

Workers must wear face coverings while interacting with patrons. The order does not require workers to wear face coverings while interacting with one another.

Some restaurants also are adhering to orders from local municipalities, which may be stricter than state guidelines. In addition, many restaurants have devised their own enhanced safety protocols.

4. How can you learn about a restaurant’s COVID-19 safety protocols?

Many restaurants have posted information about their COVID-19 policies and procedures on their websites. If a restaurant is adhering to strict safety protocols, a staff member should be able to address inquiries regarding safety measures, including mask policies (for staff and patrons), social distancing, seating options and sanitation.

5. What are some ways to avoid crowds at restaurants?

Patronize restaurants during off-peak times and days. Restaurants are less busy on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Rather than walking up, make a reservation (some restaurants are reservation-only), which helps a restaurant control crowd size and better stagger its seatings.

6. What does a good socially distanced dining setting look like?

Restaurants that are taking heightened precautions use a combination of measures, so that parties are not seated closer than 6 feet from one another, and patrons have enough room to walk and still maintain social distance. These measures may include reducing seating capacity, removing tables, not seating certain tables, and modifying the restaurant layout.

In addition, a restaurant should have protocols to mitigate crowding at entrances, and in waiting areas, hallways, elevators and other “choke points.”

7. Is it always better to eat outside than inside?

It depends. COVID-19 is thought to spread mainly through respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs, sneezes or talks. Droplets disperse more quickly outdoors than indoors, which is a primary reason why health experts recommend outdoor dining. However, there are multiple factors that increase the risk of transmission. In general, the more closely you interact with others, and the longer that interaction, the higher the risk of transmission, the CDC says. Activities are safer where there is social distancing, good ventilation, and people are wearing masks.

8. What is the most cautionary mask protocol at a restaurant?

Restaurants taking the highest precautions require all staff members — even those not interacting with guests — to wear masks while working, and require patrons to wear a mask until they are seated, as well as whenever moving around the restaurant. An additional best practice is for seated patrons to wear a mask whenever interacting with waitstaff, such as when ordering. Properly worn masks completely cover both nose and mouth.

9. What’s the best way to be a courteous diner during the pandemic?

Limit your movement at the restaurant and maintain your social distance, so that staff does not have to police your behavior. Do not linger, and respect time-cap policies; a restaurant’s table turnover affects its revenue, and restaurants operating during the pandemic are already losing revenue due to decreased capacity. To minimize your contact with waitstaff, try to limit your requests, and ask for what you need all at one time, instead of repeatedly signaling for staff. Be patient. Recognize that restaurant staff size has been reduced, and that more is required of employees to keep customers, staff and spaces safe. Finally, if you can’t leave your politics at the door, it’s best for everyone if you stay home.

10. How much should you tip?

Prior to the pandemic, standard tipping etiquette at restaurants was 15%-20%. Dining out is a luxury right now. Staff is providing patrons a service at risk to themselves. Be generous. Tip as much as your heart and pocketbook allow — that goes for takeout, too.

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